Image: Galactic bubble
ESA/PACS/SPIRE/HOBYS Consortia
This galactic bubble is known as RCW 120. It lies about 4,300 light-years away and has been formed by a star at its center. The star is not visible at these infrared wavelengths but pushes on the surrounding dust and gas with nothing more than the power of its starlight.
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updated 7/19/2010 10:35:20 AM ET 2010-07-19T14:35:20

The powerful Herschel space telescope has captured an image of a stellar nursery so shrouded by dust that no infrared telescope has been able to see it until now.

The new stellar nursery photo is among the first science results from Herschel after the observatory's launch in May 2009 by the European Space Agency (ESA). Highlights from these results were published in 152 papers devoted to Herschel science in a new issue of the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

The cloud full of baby stars lies around 1,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Aquila (the Eagle). The Herschel pictures — taken in infrared light — reveal two shining regions where big newborn stars are causing surrounding hydrogen gas to glow. At 65 light-years across, the cloud was so dusty that until now, it had appeared only as a wall.

It took Herschel — the world's most powerful infrared telescope — to peer through this haze.

"Herschel has discovered hundreds of stars forming in the Aquila molecular cloud, and in other areas, Herschel has discovered thousands of infrared galaxies in just hours of observing," Herschel principal investigator Göran Pilbratt told SPACE.com.

Observing star-forming regions like this is a primary goal of the Herschel telescope, ESA scientists said in a statement. And it is just one of the many mysteries researchers hope to probe with the telescope's powerful infrared eyes, the scientists added.

"Herschel has made a spectral scan of the Orion nebula with about 100,000 spectral features, you could go on and on, and still this is just the tip of the iceberg of what is coming," Pilbratt said.

Herschel can detect infrared and submillimeter radiation (light of wavelengths longer than optical light) at unprecedented resolution largely because of its 11.5-foot diameter mirror, which is big enough to capture longer wavelengths. The untapped ubiquity of infrared light in the cosmos means this capacity will impact our view of nearly the entire universe, researchers said.

"Most of the energy in the universe is infrared," researcher Stefano Berta at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany said in an interview. "This is why (infrared wavelengths) are so important."

Hershel will continue observing until it runs out of super-cold helium — used to cool its electronics — which was projected to last 3 1/2 to 4 years from its 2009 launch, Pilbratt said.

Time on the telescope is shared by the world's community of astronomers, who must submit proposals to vie for limited slots. The actual observations are conducted by ESA science and mission operation teams, who follow the design of the selected scientist.

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